(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commision (NSC) plans to release results of its evaluation of stress tests on reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture by the end of this week. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing for restarts of the idled nuclear reactors, operated by Kansai Electric, in spite of the fact that the plant has only fulfilled 4 of 30 government safety requirements. The plant is not yet completely waterproof, putting it at risk of tsunamis, and an earthquake-proof emergency headquarters will not be completed for at least five more years.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced that approval for the restarts would only be sought from municipalities within 10 km of the plant, sparking outrage from officials of several nearby towns. Shiga Prefecture Governor Yukiko Kada said, “Officials in Tokyo cannot grasp our prefecture’s proximity to and the danger. As the officials responsible for protecting the water source for the Kansai region (Lake Biwako), the central government needs to explain to us and gain our consent to the restart of reactors.” Lake Biwako provides drinking water for 41 million residents; radiation contamination there would be catastrophic. Parts of Shiga are only 20 km from the Oi plant and would fall within the 30 km Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ) in case of a nuclear disaster. A senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which promotes nuclear power, seemed to acknowledge that gaining consent from surrounding areas would be next to impossible: “It would not be realistic to try to gain support for the restart by including local governments within a 30 km radius.”
Meanwhile, the city of Osaka, which owns 9% of Kansai’s stock and is its majority shareholder, plans to demand that the utility abandon nuclear power and instead embrace renewable energy at the June shareholders’ meeting. The Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, said he will petition nearby Kyoto and Kobe, which also hold significant shares of Kansai stock, for their support as well.
In spite of the government’s efforts to move toward restarting reactors, the vast majority of towns surrounding nuclear power plants have no or inadequate safety plans in place in case of a nuclear disaster. Over seven million people in Japan live within 20 miles of nuclear reactors, but a year after the Fukushima disaster, warning systems and reasonable evacuation routes that will not result in gridlock are either inadequate or simply do not exist. Several emergency command centers are barely above sea level, or are so close to the plants that in the case of a crisis, radiation levels there would probably be too high to be utilized. Some towns’ disaster plans merely advise residents to “close windows” or “cover mouths with handkerchiefs” in the case of a nuclear disaster.
The NSC cancelled a study to expand evacuation zones around nuclear plants in 2006, after receiving a direct request from Kenkichi Hirose, former head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Hirose was reportedly concerned that expanding evacuation areas would raise concerns about nuclear power.
In addition, newly released documents reveal that NISA and the NSC petitioned the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005 to remove a proposed rule that would have regulated food safety within 300 km of a nuclear plant in the case of a major nuclear crisis. Officials involved expressed concern that the move would have a negative impact on the public image of nuclear power, going so far as to say that the IAEA should “consider negative publicity and other factors before defining a food regulation zone.” The IAEA bowed to Japan’s pressure, and no monitoring regulations were ever enacted. After the Fukushima disaster, the Ministry of Health Labour, and Welfare was forced to quickly establish provisional regulations, some of which were ineffective and exposed citizens to contaminated food.
Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe called for an end to all nuclear power this week, while speaking at the Salon du Livre de Paris, the largest book fair in France and one of the largest in Europe. Oe pointed out that the issue is one of basic morality: “What is the most important ethic for humans to act is not to destroy conditions that are necessary for the next generation to live.”
NISA plans to approve results of stress tests conducted on reactor #3 at Shikoku Power’s Ikata nuclear power plant in the near future. Once it does so, the NSC will need to approve the process before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda seeks public approval for the restarts.
NISA announced that 1.5 tons of low-level radioactive water leaked from the Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture this week. Japan Atomic Power Co., which operates the plant, is still trying to determine if contaminated water, measuring 33 Becquerels per gram, reached the sea.
A new poll of 34 municipal officials in 13 prefectures, conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, shows that only four would approve of restarting idled nuclear reactors if the government decides to resume operation.
TEPCO has admitted to hiring a former Japan Coast Guard official after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but is refusing to release his job title or duties. The admission comes just days after the utility admitted that it hired a former official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in order to gain insight into the city’s policies on energy. TEPCO has been criticized for fostering inappropriate relationships with government officials in order to promote nuclear power and its interests.
Decontamination and Radioactive Waste Disposal
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent formal letters to officials in 35 prefectures and 10 cities last week, requesting assistance with disposal of debris left over from last year’s tsunami and earthquake. Much of the debris is radioactive, and many municipalities have been hesitant to accept it out of residents’ fears of radiation. In Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures alone, over 220 million tons of debris has piled up.
As local governments struggle with creating decontamination plans, many residents are expressing distrust in the government’s monitoring of radiation and ability to keep them safe. Although Japan’s Ministry of the Environment has released decontamination guidelines, they fail to cover indoor contamination. In fact, no regulations cover radiation levels inside buildings and homes. A worker charged with decontaminating public buildings said that interior radiation readings have reached as high as 13,000 counts per minute (CPM), which translates to .1 microsievert per hour. Areas where radioactive dust can accumulate, such as windowsills or ventilators, are at especially high risk. In addition, residents are concerned about radioactive cesium clinging to nearby trees and contaminating water supplies. One Fukushima resident asked, “Even if the area around my home is decontaminated, I still worry about water. Can they decontaminate the whole mountain?”
Japan’s Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation will recommend that victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster who have been forced to evacuate their homes for five years or more receive should each receive six million yen in compensation for mental and emotional suffering. This amount does not include remuneration for value of homes and property.
Other Nuclear News
The plant chief at South Korea’s Kori Nuclear Power Plant, near Busan, intentionally ordered workers to conceal a significant power failure last month, raising questions about the safety of nuclear power in South Korea and the ability of its nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), to monitor reactors. The incident occurred during testing on February 9. Both external power sources and a backup generator failed. Plant officials did not report the incident for over a month, and only did so when a member of the Busan Assembly accidentally heard about it at a restaurant, and ordered an investigation into the matter. In addition, no emergency warning was issued to local residents, in spite of a legal obligation to do so.
India’s Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha, has granted approval for commissioning of the Koodankulum nuclear power plant in India, in spite of vehement opposition by local residents and anti-nuclear organizations. The protestors have been demonstrating against the reactors for more than seven months, out of concerns for their own safety. Nine protesters were arrested and taken to an undisclosed location to be interrogated.
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has sent a team of investigators to the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego, after testing there caused four steam tubes to rupture. Three additional tubes ruptured last week. The steam tubes are an integral part of the nuclear fuel cooling process, and carry radioactive water; ruptures can release radioactivity into the environment. Although the tubes were only installed in 2009 and 2010 as part of new steam generators made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd, they are now showing excessive wear, raising concerns about the reactor’s safety. Installing the generators cost $800 million.